Deconstructing the Totemic Guided Meditation

I’m still finishing up the book manuscript, but I wanted to take a break from writing to do some writing.

…wait, what?

Anyway, had this post idea come up and since it’s not going to take long to write it out, it gets to be my break from the much bigger, longer piece of writing.

I’ve been thinking about the structures within modern non-indigenous–neopagan, as I prefer to call it–totemism. One of the most common structures is that of the totemic guided meditation. There are countless examples of this; almost every book on animal totemism seems to have some version of it, and even Michael Harner included his own take in The Way of the Shaman in the chapter about finding a singular power animal. And yes, I wrote my own iteration of it several years ago which you can see in its entirety (and even use if you wish) here; it ended up as an Appendix in Fang and Fur, Blood and Bone, my very first book.

So–this thing gets around a lot. Why? because it’s effective. As I have maintained in numerous places, the guided meditation gets a person in direct contact with a totem, but without suggesting a specific animal from the get-go. It’s better than totem cards because you’re not limited just to the animals in the deck. It’s an improvement over having someone else “read” you, because there’s no intermediary to potentially miss something in the translation or add in their own biases. And it allows you and the totem to explore and establish your own unique ways of interacting with each other from the beginning.

The totemic guided meditation also offers you a relatively “safe” place to visit with totems. One thing I discovered early on in this whole Therioshamanism thing is that unlike proper journeying, which takes you deep into the spirits’ territory itself (which can be quite dangerous), guided meditation creates a sort of neutral zone that’s more mediated and less likely to present any dangers. However, it still allows for free-form exploration and communication, assuming it’s not such a rigidly structured thing that even the dialogue is scripted!

And while most totemic guided meditations are supposed to only have you meet your totem, I have found that the same meditation, slightly tweaked, is also quite effective for continuing to use the “neutral zone” to meet with the totem for ongoing work together. It’s simply a matter of going into the meditation with the intent of talking to a specific totem, instead of leaving yourself open to meet any totem, if that makes sense.

So let’s look at the different parts of the basic structure of the totem guided meditation:

The Entrance: This is usually a hole of some sort, either in the ground or a tree, but I have also had people that I led through the meditation travel through a hole in the clouds, or in ice or other water; these were their creations, not my suggestions, as I don’t specify exactly what the entrance should look like. The entrance is the starting point, the threshold between this world and the next. Once you’ve taken that first step in, you’re on your way.

The Tunnel: Traveling through the tunnel is a transition; it allows both the mind and the spirit to make the changes from the waking world to the neutral zone the person is going to visit. The tunnel may be in the ground, through trees, water, etc. It may look the same the whole way through, although the interior has also been known to shift in appearance and even size the further one gets from the waking world. The tunnel is a necessary component in the meditation, because it allows for a gradual and smooth adjustment in consciousness and spiritual state, rather than a sudden, jarring shift. For someone brand new to guided meditation, just spending time traveling down the tunnel, turning around, and then coming back can be good practice in maintaining a basic meditative focus, without the additional pressures of being in a complex new environment. The tunnel is relatively simple, and generally only goes two ways, so it’s easy to come back home as needed.

The Neutral Zone: This is an open arena where the person can explore the environment and see what totems may present themselves in first time through, as well as a known location for continued work. It is nonphysical in form, but it is a midway point between the person’s psyche, and the external spiritual world (though the boundaries between the two are often very blurred). While Harner has people stay in the tunnel, or rather, the tunnel becomes the neutral zone, I like to have people come out into an open environment where they can meet their totems. Again, as with the entrance, I allow people to picture it for themselves, rather than suggesting a specific place. This is because I don’t want them to have expectations of what animals they should or shouldn’t meet; for example, if I tell them to come out in a Pacific Northwest rain forest, but their totem is Koala, then they’re less likely to make the necessary connection. I also suggest that people explore while they’re there so that they can find the place again later. Additionally, since it is a mediated setting, people do have more control over what happens there; for example, I tell people I’m leading in meditation that if they ever lose the tunnel and need to go back quickly, all they have to do is look down at the ground at their feet and the mouth of the tunnel will appear there, and they can go right back home. Finally, it’s important to note any changes made to the neutral zone, whether within a given meditation, or over time. They may reflect changes in the totemic relationship, or even the location of the place in relation to the spiritual world (for example, if the neutral zone starts slipping deeper into spiritual territory, it may take on a wilder, more chaotic nature).

The Animal Totems: In the deconstructed guided meditation, the totem is the goal, the manifestation of the intent. Finding your totem often implies success, though I wouldn’t interpret things that strictly, personally–there’s a lot that can go wrong even if you find your totem, and a lot that go right even if you don’t. I’ve elaborated almost ad infinitum elsewhere about what your totem can be, but it basically boils down to: pretty much any animal species has a totem, you’re not limited to a certain set number of totems, the number of totems you have throughout your life can change, not every totem is permanent, and yes, I consider extinct, domestic, and mythological animals to still have totems, albeit totems with a much different perspective on the world we live in. A totem is an intermediary between its species and the rest of reality, to include human beings, though contrary to some approaches to totemism, we are not necessarily the center of a totem’s purpose for existing! (In other words, totemism isn’t just about “Get a totem to make your life AWESOMER!”) What role the totem plays in a person’s life varies from individual to individual; some see them as primarily symbolic, while others spend their lives working totemism as a daily spiritual practice. Again, this meditation can be used to either find a totem for the first time, or continue meeting with it. Just start each meditation with the appropriate intent, even perhaps saying something like “I am going to travel to meet my totem for the first time,” or “I am going to go meet with [name of totem]” before going through the entrance.

The Tunnel Back: The trip back to the waking world is just as important as the trip down the tunnel in the first place. It allows the person to integrate their experiences during the meditation, as well as readjust to being “awake” again. Most people tend to come out of the meditation too quickly, and spend their time grounding in this world with food and other physical things. While this is not bad, I feel it speaks of impatience, and doesn’t take full advantage of this important transitional stage of the totemic guided meditation. I recommend that if you do this sort of meditation, try to spend as much time coming back through the tunnel as you did heading down it.

Troubleshooting: If you’re new to meditation, or if you aren’t a very visual person, you may have trouble staying “in” the meditation long enough to find your totem. If that’s the case, try (as I mentioned above) just exploring the tunnel for a while, then graduate to just exploring the neutral zone a few times without the intent of looking for a totem. Stay in as long as you can before you feel you can’t focus any more, though do try to give yourself time to travel back through the tunnel and make a smooth transition back to being awake. If you’re doing a meditation to find a totem for the first time, and no totem shows up, or isn’t clearly your totem, give yourself a break for a couple weeks at least, then try again. If you are unsure of whether an animal is a totem, and you can get close enough to talk to it, you can always try asking whether it’s your totem or not. Also, while most people only encounter one totem at a time, it’s not at all unheard of to meet more than one in one meditation, and in fact there are some meditation structures, such as The Personal Totem Pole Process, that are created around meeting and working with multiple totems at once. If you end up with a totem you’re not comfortable with, don’t fear the worst. Sometimes it’s the animals that scare us that can really teach us; same thing goes for the ones we think are gross, or not particularly flashy. Conversely, if you get one of the “popular” totems like Grey Wolf or Tiger, don’t assume that you’re just being egotistical. Let things play out as they will no matter what totem shows up; in the end, you’re the one who gets to determine whether an experience was valid for you, not some internet peanut gallery.

…and there you have it–a basic explanation not only of totemic guided meditations, but part of what makes them work. There’s a lot more I could say, but this is just a quick break to give my mind some rest from the big, long, kinda scary book manuscript I need to finish up! I’m open to any questions about this post, if ya got ’em 🙂

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Skindancing: Shapeshifting Dance

You know how I got into making totem dance costumes in the first place? It’s because I wanted to dance in my own wolf skin! My old grey wolf skin, shown in this post, has been with me since about 1999. However, I didn’t start dancing with him until 2002, when I started going to pagan festivals. I had no one to show me how to wear him, so through a process of trial and error I figured out how to properly split him to wrap him around me, plus trying to find the best places to put the various leather straps to distribute the weight. And then I had to figure out that whole shapeshifting thing–not physically, of course, but allowing the spirit of the skin to “ride” my body, even as I felt, for the moment of the dance, what it was like to see through the eyes of a wolf. And I want to be able to share that with you, so here’s a brief tutorial on how to make it happen.

First, you need to know what skin you’re going to dance. You may, like me, prefer full skin dance costumes. However, that’s not necessary; you may be working with a headdress or tail, or even just a small skin pouch. You don’t even need actual animal parts–even vegans may participate in skindancing! What’s important is how you connect with the skin spirits, regardless of their “housing”.

If you’ve never talked with the skin spirits before, I wrote out my own method here; it may be useful to you, though you may find your own personalized way as well. Being able to connect with the spirit, whether you see it as a literal being or not, is crucial to shapeshifting dance. So before trying this more advanced practice, spend some time getting to know the skin you’re going to dance with. It’s especially important to be able to tell when the spirit is or isn’t wanting to work with you at a given time, because you’ll want to ask permission each time you want to dance with it or otherwise work with it.

Once you have a good working relationship with the spirit, it’s time to try it on for size. A pouch will probably hang with no problem around your neck or from a belt, though it’s best to have at least some physical contact with it. However, something larger may take a little practice to get it to fit just right–every person’s body is shaped differently, and so one person may have to wear the same headdress further back or forward on their head than another one. So before you even get out to the dance circle, spend some time just wearing the skin in your home and learn to adjust its fastenings and your movements as needed.

If you haven’t danced much before, or you’re not feeling quite sure of yourself, you can try dancing at home as well. One thing I recommend to people is to either watch the actual living animals in the wild or at a zoo or wildlife park, or watch videos of them, to see how they move. Then imitate that to the best of your ability. In many cases we simply aren’t able to move in the same way–we can’t fly, for example–and you may have physical limitations particular to you that need to be factored in. Never fear–it’s not about perfection! Again, the connection is what’s important.

And that’s the other half of this practicing–you want to invite the spirit to be a part of you, and allow you to be a part of it, during this dance. For a while, it may just be you moving around, concentrating on just “getting it right”. However, eventually you may find that you can feel the spiritual boundaries between you and the skin melting away. (This is why I don’t line any of the dance costumes I make, other than as needed to strengthen older hides. Direct physical contact with the skin helps facilitate spiritual connection as well!) Take some time to keep practicing and getting to know each other as dance partners.

You may also find that the totem of the species you are dancing, as well as the individual spirit of the skin, may come to dance with you. This can be a VERY powerful experience, but it can also differ from just dancing with the skin spirit. It’s easier to get overwhelmed, but it’s also good practice in deeper spiritual connections and invocation. Have a plan to get out of the trance and ground yourself if things get to be too intense; generally speaking, a totem will leave if asked politely, at least in my experience.

Once you feel ready to do this in a group setting, such as a drum circle at a pagan gathering, there are a few things to be aware of. You may find yourself distracted the first few times you do this, either by trying to not get stepped on by other dancers, or being overwhelmed by all the drumming, or overheated by the fire. (If you’re wearing a full skin dance costume, wear as little clothing as you can and still be decent in the given setting–a swimsuit, for example. Yes, even in cool weather–fur and fire will make you warm in no time!) Don’t worry; it happened to me when I was first starting out, and I still have recent experiences where someone bumped into me and knocked me out of trance. That’s another thing–know who you can go to if you need some help grounding. Taking the skin off breaks the connection, but it won’t necessarily get you back to your baseline headspace. If there are no professional fire tenders, have a friend or two there who can help you come back to yourself.

An important note: Be aware of the animal’s behavior versus your own preconceived notions! I have seen people use skindancing and other shapeshifting practices to act out–basically using the imagery of Wolf to excuse their inability to control their own anger and aggression, for example. How much of yourself are you projecting onto the animal? How much aggression does the animal actually use on a daily basis versus what popular media states? Wolves can be aggressive, but they’re also highly social, and the pack hierarchy is much more relaxed in the wild, as opposed to in the sorts of captive refuge situations where a lot of observation has taken place. (Captive wolves tend to exaggerate the hierarchy due to being in such close quarters.) So dancing Wolf isn’t just about being a snarling beast embodying all the animal qualities we humans tend to repress; it’s also about being loving and playful and sleeping a lot after a big meal!

You don’t have to restrict yourself to just one animal, either. I primarily dance Wolf, but I have also dance Bear, Deer, Buffalo, Leopard, and many others. And even if you dance multiple skins of the same species, get to know them as individuals. Some like dancing more than others, and some just prefer special occasions.

There’s a lot more to this, but these are the basics. If you want to know more about my work with skin spirits, feel free to read more of the entries in the Skin Spirits category of this blog. You may also purchase a copy of my book, Skin Spirits, in the bookstore portion of my website. And I’m always happy to answer questions and give feedback as my time allows 🙂

Hope For the Future

So I am in serious crunch time with my Master’s degree program. Next week is finals, and I am due to finish my internship at the end of August. In addition to all this, I’m trying to take some opportunities with my artwork, along with working on a new book as well as finalizing the animism anthology I started at the beginning of this whole grad school thing. Between that busy-ness, and my spirituality being more drawn inward, I haven’t had a lot to say here.

However, all these things converged in an experience today that I thought was worth sharing. As preparation for evaluating my internship site (for those unaware I’m completing my MA in counseling psych), I’ve been sitting in on some of the therapy groups that I haven’t previously facilitated or co-facilitated, just to get a more well-rounded understanding of the program. Today’s group, comprised of women who have completed the inpatient portion of the program and are now in clean and sober housing, did some art therapy, creating boxes as transitional objects to help them stay focused on their recovery. While the original concept of a transitional object was concerning “blankies” and other things a young child uses to replace the bond with hir mother, it may also be applied more generally to other situations where an object stands in for as connection, particularly when in need of comfort. One of the common factors contributing lapse or relapse in many recovering addicts is a lack of impulse control. A transitional object can help the client “check” themselves and remind them there is an alternative to giving in to the craving, as well as reminding them of positive connections made during treatment and other recovery efforts.

It’s similar to what you see in magic and other spiritual practices–objects as reminders of a positive goal, concept, etc. The activity that today’s group engaged in–decorating boxes with decoupage/collage materials–could just as easily been a coven or other magical group spending an afternoon creating pocket shrines or other devotional objects, or items for spells and rituals. I tend to prefer magical work that utilizes such things, partly for the process of creativity, but also because I simply like having physical reminders of nonphysical things around me. The objects reinforce my perceived connection to what they represent. And, of course, the process of making the object adds intent and effort, making it more personal than simply buying a random box from the store (though a carefully planned shopping trip can also be a strong ritual in and of itself).

I was invited to create my own box along with the clients. While I spent some time observing facilitation, I did manage to put together some small and simple that spoke to current events:

Part of what I am going through right now is a lot of mixed feelings about my decision to be completely self-employed when I complete my internship. I’m intending to be an artist and writer part-time, since that business has been effective enough to essentially be a part-time job, and to open a part-time private counseling practice. This will help keep me from burning out on either endeavor entirely, and give me the sort of variety that I prefer. However, there’s a lot of fear surrounding this. I would be happier with more business capital saved up, though I’m better off than I thought I’d be. And even with that backing me, in this economy, and especially in the slump that Portland is in, there are no guarantees that even my greatest efforts will succeed. While I cannot speak for the experiences of my clients, I can see some resemblance between my fear of failure, and their own, though the particulars vary quite a bit. So this exercise in creating something to answer that fear was timely for all of us.

I started with an image of wilderness, Canyon Creek, taken from a travel magazine. This represented a safe environment, and one full of life and ongoing potential. I wanted to emphasize to myself that while things could always be better, I have lots of opportunities and I’m not starting from a place of desperation or emergency. I added a picture of a handmade wooden bowl from a wood crafting magazine. I love this sort of craftsmanship, and when I own a house some day I would love to fill it with this sort of uniquely crafted, practical creation. I found, in a home decorating publication, a photo of a weathered whitetail deer antler hanging on a cord; while much simpler than what I make, it stood in for the talents and skills I do bring to this situation, that I am not helpless and I have a lot to offer wherever I may go. Finally, I completed the box with a quote from Thomas Bailey Aldrich: “They fail, and they alone, who have not striven”. Just another way of saying nothing ventured, nothing gained, and a reminder to me that even in the worst-case scenario where everything falls to pieces and I am left with nothing, at least I tried going for a dream I’ve held for a very long time, and the success of which will be highly beneficial to me on numerous levels.

I’m going to be using this box to contain my fears. Any time I feel doubt or worry about the future, I’m going to write it on a small slip of paper, put it into the box, and let that hope for the future contain and surround the worries. While there may be genuine concerns at the heart of those doubts, I want to temper them with optimism. This is one way to remind myself of that.

Wolf Skin Ritual

Aha! I think I figured out how to keep you folks with RSS feeds from getting slammed with all the pictures! Let me know if it works.

Anyway, today I did the ritual I had planned to retire my old wolf skin and dedicate the new one. Only a few folks showed up, but it was a good group, and it was a really successful ritual overall. I’ve got a full writeup and some pictures to share here–enjoy!

I’ve been dancing with this old guy since 2002:

He was my very first wolf skin, purchased in the late 1990s, and he told me before I went to my first pagan gathering that he wanted to dance with me. So I split him open, rigged him up with some leather straps to tie him to me, and we went out and danced at the fire circle, with great success! Since then, we’ve danced together around numerous circles. Sadly, I didn’t know much about taking care of hides til much later, and between rainy, damp nights in tents, and heat from the fires, he decomposed over time even though his was a pretty good quality tan.

So I recently made the final payment on my new wolf skin, and wanting to have him dedicated before going to a Beltane festival next weekend, today was prime time for making the ritual happen. Here’s a picture of him right after he arrived in the mail:

At some point I want to post a tutorial on how I got him from that to his present state, but now’s not the time.

So I got things set up for the ritual. Here are a couple of pictures of the altar:

There are some items from the permanent Grey Wolf altar in my art/ritual room, along with my Black Bear rattle which I use to call and send home spirits, a fern frond and a turtle shell of water that I use to purify the ritual area prior to ritual, my ritual knife, and a platter with pouches for part of the ritual later on. You can also see the two hides curled up together, and a collection of spare musical instruments, as well as my own drum.

I started the ritual with purification by sprinkling water with the fern, since I dislike smoke and therefore smudging. (Sprinkling water on people is especially fun depending on their reactions. I’m definitely keeping this!) I then called the various spirits and places of the directions to join us, along with a couple of other beings I wanted to invite, Grey Wolf included.

Then I picked up my old wolf skin and carried him around the altar, talking about our history together, how he taught me to wolf dance, and some of the things we had been through. I talked about how it was going to be our last dance together, and that this was a very special event. Then I put him on for the last time, and while the other participants drummed and rattled, we danced around the altar. I could feel how tired and worn-out he is, but he made a good go of it, and we ended it with three good, long howls.

Then I took him off, and I was crying as I did so. I thanked him one more time for the good years dancing together. I laid him out on the floor, and stretched out the new skin as well. I took the leather straps from the old skin and transferred them to the new skin, whom I had previously prepared.

And then I danced the new skin. And I could most definitely feel the difference! This guy was ready and raring to go! We didn’t so much dance as run, leap, pounce, and gambol. (Yes, I said gambol.) It was tough at times to get him to stay focused on the dancing, which was fine–I’m just glad he was so happy to be moving around again. There’ll be time enough to work out etiquette between us. It was good, though, and I’m looking forward to the fire dancing next weekend.

We then took a break to chow down on the potluck goodies people had brought, and enjoy some social time. After that, I had people bring the small leather pouches I had given them, and I cut off small bits of fur from both wolves and put them in the pouches. Mind you, I never give away fur from my personal wolf skins, so this was a really unusual thing–those who got them received very special gifts. And then I closed down the ritual, said farewell to the assembled (both corporeal and otherwise) and went to ground.

I put the old wolf skin on the permanent altar; here’s a pic:

You can see the Brown Bear altar beneath it, and also some assorted ritual and art effects on the floor at the base. No surprise, I’m already running out of room on the Wolf altar.

And while I didn’t have pics taken during the ritual, here are a few pictures of me in the new wolf skin. (No, that’s not my ritual wear–it’s the outfit I wore during the pics I took for the potential tutorial I may do.)

It takes a very large wolf skin to be able to fit over my 5’4″ frame like that. It’ll take some time for us to adjust to each other; I need to fit the straps properly, and add a couple of others. Also, my arms do fit through the holes that his forelegs went through on the front leg skins, but it’s a tight fit. It’ll loosen over time, though. Still, he fits nicely like my old skin did, and we were very comfortable dancing together.

Also, small bit of timing–my period started in earnest while I was dancing the new skin. Given that the moon is waxing, and Artemis has recently come into my life again, and I am a Luperca in the Ekklesia Antinoou it’s an interesting series of convergences to note.

PantheaCon and the Bear Performance Ritual

So at this year’s PantheaCon in San Jose, CA, I officially did my first big public group ritual. Ever. Really.

See, I’ve been feeling things converging toward taking my practice more public as I’ve become more confident in what I’m doing, and when I’ve checked with both the spirits and human peers, I’ve generally been supported in this. So when the time came to submit workshops and other activities for this year’s PantheaCon, back in the fall, I decided to take the chance of doing a shamanic ritual there. I figured if it got accepted, then it would be a chance for me to really put what I’m doing to the test.

The more I actually practice my shamanism, the more I really find I dislike the one-on-one model of practice, where you just have the shaman and client in isolation, and it’s fairly streamlined, with a little drumming, but not much in the way of pageantry. And I’m really fond of the concept of sacred play and ritual theater as facilitating suspension of disbelief and magical states of consciousness. This is important to my practice because I work with the self as a series of systems–physical, psychological, spiritual, etc. I find it easiest to approach magical work from the psychological angle, but with the understanding that I’m affecting the whole shebang. And play is a great way to engage the psyche.

I also am of the opinion that shaman circles aren’t the way for me to go. I dislike being in a group where it’s basically (please forgive the saying) too many chiefs, not enough indians. Not only does the process have to be watered down to accommodate everyone, but personally, I don’t want, as the presider over the ritual, to be responsible for the safety of a bunch of people in the Otherworld. I do not agree with the common (though not universal) core shamanism assertion that journeying is safer than dreaming (and I don’t even think dreaming is always safe). Just because the place where, for example, Brown Bear lives is close to my starting point and is a relatively safe place for me, doesn’t mean that that place will extend the same courtesy to other people.

Therefore, my conception of a “group ritual” in my shamanic practice isn’t “we’re all gonna journey together and be this raucous drumming party romping through the Otherworld in search of soul fragments and cheap beer”. Instead, I’m fond of the model in which there is a presiding shaman who is the relative expert, and the rest of the community, whether it’s a long-standing one, or part of a Temporary Autonomous Zone, helps to create the space within which the shaman works. That’s where I’ve been trying to go with this concept of shamanic performance ritual.

Other than the Grey Wolf and Brown Bear rituals I’ve done in my home, I haven’t really been able to put this to the test in an actual group setting. I’ve practiced various elements in private in preparation, but nothing is the same as actually doing the work. So the PantheaCon ritual was a way for me to try out, with a larger group and in a different setting, these things that I’d been mostly developing in theory. And it was the first time I’d done work with an in-person client, which I’ll write about more in a bit. (My client had been very aware of this from the beginning and was more than happy to be my guinea pig.)

Because of the experimental nature of this ritual, I made it very, very clear both in the preparation workshop prior to the ritual, and right before the ritual itself, that if anyone did not feel comfortable participating in something that was still basically a work in progress, they were more than welcome to leave before I got started. Also, I specifically chose a ritual with Brown Bear because s/he is the totem I have had the most experience with in spiritual and magical practice; s/he has always been the first to step up when I wanted to try a new practice, and s/he has been my greatest guide in my shamanic work, even more than Grey Wolf. And we negotiated the parameters prior to the ritual itself, so that the ritual was mainly (though not entirely) a formality to enact what we had agreed. So there were a lot of factors in place to minimize potential disasters.

I also made it very, very clear that I did not want anyone following me into the Otherworld while I journeyed. Trancing during the drumming was fine, just so long as the people remained here, and I had (human) helpers keeping an eye on the participants to make sure everyone was okay while I was occupied with my work. I explained in great detail when everyone else would get to drum/chant/etc. along with me as part of helping to maintain that collective space, but I wanted to make the boundaries clear. To be honest, I was a bit worried since neopagans in general are used to a high degree of participation, and the shamanic circle is pretty common in and of itself, so I was worried that people might be bored, or not get what I was trying for. However, the orientation workshop served pretty well to make my points clear to folks what was happening, and why, and I couldn’t have asked for a better group of folks.

So what, exactly, happened? Along with the above points, I spent the orientation workshop giving background on my practice over the past decade and change, how I was weaving various disparate threads of practice into a cohesive neoshamanism, and why. I answered questions and addressed concerns, and we all had a really good rapport together.

And then there was the ritual itself. There weren’t as many people as I thought would be there, fewer than twenty, but it was also eleven at night and we were scheduled opposite a drum circle (stiff competition when you’re dealing with a crowd used to being heavy participants). Still, it was a great group, and I was able to get right down to business.

My setup was pretty simple. I had brought my brown bear skin, from a very old rug, and laid her out on the floor with my various tools and offerings to Brown Bear on her. My drum was there, too, and my client had laid out his coat to lay on during the ritual. I also had a bottle of water and a bag of jerky, just in case my weird-ass metabolic issues decided to act up, or if I needed to bring edibles into the Otherworld with me (better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it!)

I started off with a warmup. I believe very much in the power of humor to break people out of their defenses, and so I started off with a few jokes, some banter, and a dirty political limerick, all of which went over quite nicely. It got people to pay attention to me and relax and laugh–and focus.

After this, I greeted the land spirits. I don’t do a circle casting, but I do like to greet the more prominent genii locii, and the four directions make convenient delineations. So I greeted local spirits like the Guadalupe river (who I went to visit shortly before the ritual) and both sets of mountain ranges, as well as evoking my connection to Oregon and the Columbia River, among others. I shook my Black Bear rattle and had everyone else drum, clap, etc. along with me. I ended each evocation with a yell, “HA!”, and by the time I was done everyone was yelling with me–which was great fun. I’m definitely keeping that.

Then it was time for the journey itself. I think this was the toughest part of the performance part of the ritual, because I had anticipated there being more drums than there were and therefore didn’t bother preparing myself to narrate during my journey, which takes more concentration. So people mostly were there watching me sit and drum, and make noise along with me, to help act as a heartbeat to help me find my way back. I need to either figure out how to deal with narration when there may be a lot of noise, or some other way to keep the other people occupied with something besides boring old me sitting and beating on a drum while my spirit’s off elsewhere. The risk of dramatic narration is that if I get too focused on telling people “back home” what’s going on, I find myself slipping back to my body before I’m done with my work. On the bright side, I found that having the heartbeat that people were creating helped me orient back to my body, which was a concern since this was the first big journey I had done from a relatively unfamiliar location.

Brown Bear was sleeping, of course, but s/he woke up long enough to tell me what I needed to do with the offerings to hir and the gift to my client. S/he said s/he wouldn’t come hirself, but that s/he’d send a part of hirself with me to help with the ritual. So I did what s/he told me to, and came back to do the work in this world.

Once I returned, I explained briefly what was going to happen. Then I draped the bear skin over me, and tapped out a basic beat for people to follow. I danced until I felt the spirit of the bear skin, and that tendril of Brown Bear’s energy connect in me, and I became a bear myself. I went to my client and sought out ill areas, and he told me later that the first place I homed in on was a place that had been hurting. I went to these places on his body, and I yanked out, for lack of a better word, buildups of “bad energy”. It wasn’t a full-cure–these are chronic conditions–but it was a way to clear out the crap that had built up on an energetic/spiritual level at the sites of these conditions and bring temporary relief. I then breathed in Bear/bear energy/power/whatever you want to call it into the voids left by these things I removed, snuffling and whuffing like a bear, and tearing out the bad with teeth and claws while putting in the good with breath.

I then gave the client a small gift, and told him what to do with it. Were he local to me, I would see about arranging this to be a regular thing, not as a cure-all, but simply as maintenance. Such as it was, he actually reported immediate, measurable physical improvements in his symptoms–whether you want to call this the placebo effect isn’t as important as the fact that the ritual did what it was supposed to do.

I danced Bear/bear back out, and then did another acknowledgement of the land spirits (again with that fun yell at the end!) I had checked on the other participants at a couple of breaks in the ritual itself, just to be sure everyone was alright, and then again at the end once everything was cleared out and I knew my client was okay.

Unfortunately, I didn’t do such a great job of making sure I was okay. I spent most of the rest of the weekend pretty fragged and fatigued, partly due to not grounding properly, but also because I’ve found that shamanic work takes more out of me, physically and otherwise, than any other spiritual and magical work I’ve ever done–and that includes the crazy-ass chaos magic experimentation I did a number of years ago. I now have a much better idea of why people talk about the sacrifices associated with shamanic practice, and why my instincts were screaming at me to dig my heels in when the spirits were still unsuccessfully trying to convince me to do this stuff in the first place. Granted, I already had insomnia and metabolic issues, but they and the shamanic work like to play into each other post-ritual, and I’m still learning to find a good balance of self-care with this sort of work.

My client, and other people, really seemed to appreciate the ritual itself for a variety of reasons. And I learned quite a bit from it about how to proceed in the future, what worked, and what needs more adjustment. Most importantly, though, it reaffirmed for me that yes, this is what I need to be doing. More on that later. For now, I’m going to continue recovering, and assessing the results of my work.

Grey Wolf Ritual

Today was the ritual for Grey Wolf. I hadn’t even consciously planned the ritual for today; I just chose a date that seemed convenient. Just so happens that tonight is a blue moon, and the Wolf Moon, or so I was informed. Which is funny, because I inadvertently scheduled the Brown Bear ritual on a full moon, too.

So Tay helped me clear out the living room again. I set up the altar on the coffee table; once again, apologies to those on the LJ feed as I can’t put in cuts from here:




I collected what little wolfish knickknacks I still have and put them on the altar; I’ve gotten rid of most of them over the years as I’ve downsized my collection of shiny objects. There was also the wolf skull that hangs with my collection, and a deerskin painting I did a number of years ago. The beadwork strips are the first two I ever did, way back in high school in the mid-90’s. That actually gives Wolf a connection to my artwork, since that all started with the beadwork (which I no longer do). The long green and brown thing with the bone spike on the end is a hair wrap I wore for a year, and there are a couple of other random things on there. And the wooden plate has the little gift pouches I gave to the participants.

You can also see the Arctic wolf headdress and tail I wear when journeying, and the full wolf skin I’ve danced with for most of a decade. There’s my big drum, and a couple of spares, as well as the elk bells I made last year. Between the drums is the wolf fur coat that’s part of my costume, to be worn (of course) if I get cold. The blanket that covers the altar is just temporary, until in the spring when I retire my old wolf skin to altar guardian duty.

So once everyone got settled in, I did a brief explanation of what I was doing there today. I explained a bit of the context of why I’m creating therioshamanism the way that I am, with the cultural context and why I’m trying to revive performance rituals as an art form as well as spiritual practice. Then I picked up my drum and began to warm it up, explaining to people why I was doing that.

The journey itself was actually one of the fastest I’ve ever done. When I went to go formally invite Grey Wolf to join us, s/he said “Geez, you didn’t even need to come here; all you had to do was ask and I’d show up”. Which isn’t surprising given how omnipresent s/hes been in my life. But I wanted to be formal about things, and so s/he humored me. (“Should I have snarled and snapped at you when you showed up, just for show? Grrrrr! Look at me! I’m fierce!” s/he said.)

So then Wolf sent me back and said s/he’d follow, even though she knows the way quite well. When I got back and cooled the drum down, I then told the other folks there that now, instead of just drumming along to my single-note journeying beat, we got to do fun drumming! They began drumming, and I put my wolfskin on and began to dance (after taking the journeying headdress and tail off!) It was a bit of a sad event for me, since it would be the last full dance I’ll be doing with that skin. We slid into each other’s energy has we always have, and while the dance was indoors in a relatively small space, it was a good one. While I could wish for a place to do outdoor dancing around a fire on a regular basis, for now, the living room works.

Once I was done dancing, and while we still drummed, we talked some about what Grey Wolf was to us, our relationship to that totem. I also spoke a bit about my wolfskin and what we had done over the years. Then we took a break to enjoy the various edibles people had brought and ground a bit. Finally, I closed down the ritual, thanking Wolf and the other spirits who had been there for their presence.

After everyone left, I set up the permanent altar in my ritual/art room:

There were offerings a couple of people had brought that I added in. The wolf skull went back to its usual place on the wall near the altar, and the various skins went to their homes as well.

One of the things I noticed is that I enjoy throwing in little bits of explanation for why I do things as I do them, just to give people an idea of the reasons for things. I think I may make this more of a regular feature of the public rituals.

Also, while I’m still new to this whole group ritual thing, I want to try building up more formality around the rituals–for example, I would have loved to have had a themed potluck, preparing some kind of meat (maybe venison) for the occasion and letting people bring other things for Grey Wolf (with allowances for non-meat-eaters, etc.)

And it’s tougher to build up a good atmosphere for this sort of ritual indoors than it is outdoors, or in a space that is specifically designed for ritual work. But we work with what we have, and I’m sure I can tweak things to create a better setting as time goes on. While I’m very good at individual ritual, group ritual is still new to me, and so it’s going to take practice.

But overall, it went really well, and people seemed to get a lot out of it. Grey Wolf was pleased as well, and is happy to have a formal “home” within my home now.

The Importance of Ritual Tools

First of all, I just want to make a brief announcement–for those of you who will be attending PantheaCon next month, I will be doing a Brown Bear healing ritual as part of the official programming on Saturday night of the con at 11pm; there’ll be an optional-but-recommended informational meeting at 9pm to give folks context.

Now for my main topic, brought on by a conversation with a friend over on Livejournal. S/he was talking about ritual tools, and mentioned the attitude (which s/he does not hold to hirself) that a lot of pagans have that advanced practitioners “don’t need” ritual tools, that one “should” be able to practice one’s magic and spirituality empty-handed, and with the subtle undercurrent that this is the superior way of doing things.

To which I say: fuck that noise.

Okay, okay, so I can accept that that attitude sprang out of reactions to the countless n00bs who tend to be more interested in the pretty shiny objects than in what to do with them. (This happens with all sorts of things, not just spiritual practice. Magpie Syndrome reigns supreme.) But it’s not necessarily true that you grow out of that liking for tools and toys. It’s just that your understanding of them should ideally deepen and develop further.

Personally, I like my collection of tools. I have my main drum, and a smaller one thats mostly become a loaner at this point. I have several skins that I dance, and I’m slowly building altars to individual totems. Plus there’s my general shamanic costumery. Add in that I enjoy making ritual tools, and its pretty clear what side of the divide I’m on.

Part of it’s my animistic tendencies. When I “work with” ritual tools, it’s not as with inanimate objects, but with other spirits embodied in other forms. That’s why I ask my drum and beater, for example, for permission to pick them up, never mind starting to pound them against one another. It’s respect, and acknowledgement of their being spirits.

Creating ritual tools, for me, is a process of working with the spirits within the materials I’m working with. As I explain in detail in Skin Spirits, my newest book that just came out, I work with the spirits in animal remains, hides and bones and other things. This has been a consistent part of my practice for over a decade, and a lot of it I do to give them a better afterlife than being a coat or a taxidermy trophy. That’s why they all get a ritual done for them to help them find the best people who will appreciate them for who and what they are. And with my own tools, I’m not just picking up inanimate objects–I’m handling these spirits’ physical forms/dwellings. They’re right there; I don’t need to go looking all over the Otherworld for them.

Just as important is the concept of suspension of disbelief, of sacred ritual play. As you may have noticed, I’m a huge fan of this concept. Rituals are a time and place apart from the everyday, though ideally they should not be completely removed from it–your journey’s no good if you can’t effectively bring back what you found to the world you spend most of your time engaging with. Suspending your disbelief allows you to temporarily set aside the mental barriers that keep you from Imagination-with-a-big-I, or the spirit world, or however you want to explain That Other Place. We don’t live there permanently for good reason, but it can be very beneficial to visit at times. And, as Joseph Campbell liked to point out, ritual performance is a form of play, something that is vital to a healthy human psyche. Not all rituals are fun, but the play, the engaging of Other Than Ordinary Reality for a time, as well as Czikszenmihalyi’s flow state, serves its own purpose above and beyond the extrinsic reasons.

To my mind, empty-handed rituals take the play out of ritual. As a culture, Americans in particular have a tendency to hyper-intellectualize just about everything. So it’s not surprising that so many American pagans would espouse a form of ritual that primarily engages the mind, leaving much less for the body and other levels of being to work with. Sure, you can do an entire ritual sitting in asana, crafting the ritual temple solely in your head while your body remains perfectly motionless save for carefully timed breathing. But you’re missing out on a lot of potential benefits of engaging more of yourself, starting with your body. The mind is not isolated from the rest of being; psychosomatic illnesses and distress from being ill are good examples. So my thought is that trying to isolate the mind away from the rest has a good chance of not being particularly healthy in a lot of instances.

Ritual tools keep us firmly grounded in the physical reality, even as we soar to other places. Additionally, when we’re back in ordinary reality, they’re a constant reminder of what we’re capable of. They’re a bridge between the worlds, and they help facilitate the transition back and forth. Like the horse spirit in the drum, they are the transportation we use, and they help keep us balanced. They are inherently marked as special, and they continuously attract and reinforce our attention in a way that mental castles never can.

The trick isn’t to transcend the use of tools. The trick is to find the tools that are most effective for flipping the internal switches in your mind–and other parts of your self, body included–that make your rituals work. Yes, it’s possible that the best tools for you may be entirely mental. But for a lot of us, we benefit from and thoroughly enjoy the use of the physical tools themselves. After all, if playing an air guitar were the epitome of play, then Rock Band and Guitar Hero wouldn’t have a market.

(Yes, I totally just compared ritual practice to video games. Blame my geekhood.)

If you do prefer open-handed ritual, don’t consider that to be automatically superior to those of us monkeys who like our tool use to be a little more blatant. The shiny surfaces are connected to much deeper things, and, unlike many of those n00bs who are just figuring things out, we know not to mistake the map for the territory.